When thinking about diabetes, many tend to immediately associate it with an abnormal level of blood sugar, and therefore dieting as a way of helping to regulate it. Although it is true that insulin deficiency in diabetes does lead to elevated blood sugar, and diets that contain unsaturated fat and high protein and fibre do help with either prevention or management of the disease, diet alone cannot lift all the heavy weights.
For obesity and cardiovascular disease, we are used to thinking about exercise and all the ways it might help people with these conditions. Since both of these are often linked to a diagnosis of diabetes, it is only reasonable that we consider exercise and its impact on diabetes, as well.
In this post, we are going to talk about the simplest exercise of all—so simple that we don’t even think of it as exercise anymore—walking. No, we are not talking about power walking, specifically. Not necessarily. Because of the intimate link between heart disease and obesity, and because walking benefits the health of people who have either one or both, it is already indirectly beneficial for diabetic people.
But as research shows, there are other more direct ways in which walking benefits those struggling with diabetes.
Walking and diabetes
For most average people generally free of health problems, the idea that exercise makes them healthier overall is common sense and old news. Evidence is rarely needed to convince people that exercise is good for them, even though whether or not they actually exercise is a whole other story. For those with diabetes which elevates the chances of getting a heart disease, though, some convincing might be required by providing data.
In an editorial written by Dr. James O. Hill for the journal Diabetes Care, he summarizes some findings on our specific kind of exercise, walking, and its effect on type 2 diabetes. They found that health improvements in the diabetic patients emerged after even just a modest increase in their exercise rates.
But of course, the frequency as well as intensity of your exercise matter. That is, for example, walking around the apartment for five minutes a day is not adequate exercise. The same study goes into further detail about how much exercise is needed. According to the report, at least 10 MET hours per week is required for the health benefits of exercising for diabetes to show.
MET stands for metabolic equivalent of task. It is a value you get by calculating the ratio between your active metabolic rate and resting metabolic rate. A 10 MET hour is reached by jogging at around 6 miles per hour for an hour, or accumulating less intensive exercises over a week’s time.
In the case of walking, the MET assigned to it is about 2.0 to 3.0, depending on how fast you walk, which means walking, be it strolling or power walking (if you prefer), for an hour every day for five days would give you about 10 MET hours.
Research on walking
But the matter of walking and diabetes is not nearly as simple as it seems thus far. The complication comes in the form of exercise timing. In other words, at what time during the day you exercise can influence the effectiveness of the exercise on health improvements.
In a study published in Diabetologia in 2016, Dr. Reynolds et al. tested the idea of walking reducing blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Specifically, they compared the effects of walking at a random time during the day versus walking routinely after mealtime.
The participants were randomly assigned to two groups. One group was instructed simply to do 30 minutes of walking at a time of their choosing; the other group was asked to walk 10 minutes after each meal. The results showed that the second group saw more improvements in the circulating glucose (one of the sugars free-floating in the bloodstream) levels.
This study shows, in addition, that the differences between the groups were particularly striking when the participants had eaten a meal with more carbohydrates. Equally striking were the differences shown after dinner. The findings not only points to the physiological mechanisms in diabetes, but also to human behaviour and psychology.
You will notice that the effect of walking was the most obvious when it was done after dinner, which tends to be the most substantial meal of the day. And after dinner, normally, people tend to engage in more sedentary activities, such as reading, watching TV, or simply hanging out and chatting with friends.
At this time, your system has just received a fresh batch of energy. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to suppose that right after a meal is where the already deficient insulin system is straining the most to function. It might need a little help from you by simply taking a walk. However, the advice that you should take the walk after a meal should not be taken without a grain of salt.
According to Dr. Zonszein, the director of the Clinical Diabetes Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, as he told the WebMD in an inquiry, exercising immediately after a meal may not be a good idea for those with a heart disease. The reason is that the systems demand a lot of blood and oxygen which are both pumped out by the heart, heaving upon it a heavier load than usual.
Though this advice is a warning for those with a heart condition, diabetic people are more prone to heart diseases and thus should also take this advice to heart when developing your new routine. In the same issue of Diabetologia published in 2016, another study also affirmed that moderate and intense exercises on a regular basis helped to stabilize the blood glucose levels of those at risk for developing diabetes. That is, those exercises helped to reduce the risks for developing diabetes in the first place.
According to the MET values, a more brisk walking or power walking, which has a value of 3.0, would count as a form of moderate exercise, the kind that have protective effects against diabetes, it seems.
All in all, walking is good for not only generic health for the typical person, but for the overall health of diabetic people. It is especially beneficial following a substantial meal. If you do consume more than usual carbohydrates, then, according to research, there is all the more reason to take a nice walk instead of sitting still on the couch.
But as with many health advices, it is not to be taken blindly. As doctors pointed out, exercising right after a meal may be bad for your heart as your body will demand more work from your cardiovascular system. So, as with diet plans, if you plan to add a brisk walk to your post-meal routine, make sure you do it under the guideline laid out by your doctor after a consultation.
Finally, when it is all said, it would not amount to much if you cannot execute the exercise plan on a regular, daily basis. Next, we are laying out some tips for integrating more walking into your everyday life.
How to walk more
When it comes to exercise, as with dieting, the key point is to plan ahead so that you may have time and energy and even location for your after-meal walks. It is more than understandable if your workplace is too far away for you to walk there every day. But there are still ways to squeeze in some walking time even if you drive or take public transit.
The idea is simple, really. Get off the transportation—whatever it is—a couple miles away from your destination. Not a lot, just one to two miles. Get off and start walking. But this idea requires time management skills to pull off, since you may not want to be late, and you don’t want to overexert your heart, either—that would be counterproductive if your have diabetes.
One trip to work, another back, and you will have already walked 4 to 5 miles. If you could do the same near your place, you would be well within the target range of activity. Of course, walking outside is much more challenging, if not impossible during winter time, depending on where you live. But there are still ways to overcome the obstacle.
Instead of the above-mentioned way of walking partially to work and back, you might consider taking a few flights of stairs when you reach the destination. Since stepping on stairs is more intense for your cardiovascular system and your muscles, make sure you start slowly—do not overexert.
Lastly, to summarize a takeaway, you might want to start walking wherever you can. For instance, if it’s only one stop of subway away, and the weather permits, opt for a walk instead of a ride. Both you heart and your blood sugar will thank you later.